Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter


  There are four principal reasons which led the University's Senate and Council to vote in favour of closing Chemistry.

  1.  Funding for 4-rated departments has been reduced. Since the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), research funding for Chemistry has fallen by 42% to £16K per member of staff. This compares with 5-rated Physics, which receives £46K per member of staff.

  2.  Financial deficit. Although Chemistry recruits students to quota it still loses £188K a year on teaching. On research, Chemistry loses £605K a year.

  3.  Decline in research earnings. The value of research grants awarded to Chemistry since 2001 has fallen by 36%.

  4.  Enabling the University to continue to compete at the highest level. In the 2001 RAE Exeter entered 37 subjects (the average for 1994 Group universities is 22). The closure of Chemistry and other changes in the academic portfolio will bring the number of subjects down to 29, enabling the University to concentrate on its strongest academic areas. This is vital given the increasing concentration of research funds in 5 and 5* rated departments mentioned in 1 above. No other closures are planned.

  Although Chemistry is being closed the number of science students at Exeter remains the same with places being transferred to a new School of Biosciences. The strongest areas of Chemistry research, which are at the interface with Biology and Physics, will be retained.


  The University fully appreciates that this is an unsettling period for the students. It is also obvious from talking to the students that there is unlikely to be a "one size fits all" solution. Three options for further study have therefore been worked out in consultation with them.

  1.  Remain at Exeter to finish the Chemistry course. The University will make the necessary arrangements to provide teaching, by "buying back" staff who accept voluntary severance and/or by employing other staff on teaching only contracts. The University will know by the end of February how many students wish to stay and it will then be possible to say how many teaching staff are required. Offers to stay on and teach the students have already been made to a number of Chemistry staff. Given that many university Chemistry departments in the UK do not recruit to quota there should be no particular difficulty in recruiting extra teaching capacity if necessary. Labs and equipment are NOT being closed down and will continue to be available.

  2.  Transfer to another University. This was developed as an option in response to a request by the students themselves. Senior management have been working closely with Bath and Bristol universities, who were selected because of their high academic standards and proximity to Exeter. Provided they pass their end of year exams at Exeter, students can transfer straight into the next year at Bath or Bristol. Other universities have also offered places. If a student transfers to another university they will receive a single payment of £2K to cover expenses. If by transferring to a university other than Bath/Bristol they have to repeat a year they will receive £3.5K.

  Transfer to another degree at Exeter. The same £2K/£3.5K deal applies.

  The University has investigated the deals offered by other universities who have closed departments and, to our knowledge, the £2K/£3.5K deal is the most generous ever offered.


  The timing of the announcement was driven by two factors outside of the University's control. Firstly, Chemistry was expected to make a loss this year, but it was not until after the start of the autumn term that the chemists forecast an even greater divergence from financial targets. This was no longer sustainable. Secondly, the government's stance on national shortage subjects (ie no extra funds to support 4-rated science) did not become clear until November. A strong policy steer was obviously necessary before a decision about Chemistry's future could be taken.


  A communication plan was developed to tell Heads of Schools first, staff in the affected departments second, students third, and then the media. It would be done in quick succession.

  The Heads of the Schools most affected by the changes met individually with the Vice-Chancellor between 5 and 9 November 2004. The news was broken to all Heads of School and the Guild of Students at a meeting of the Senior Management Group (SMG) on Thursday 18 November. SMG were asked to keep the information confidential until other groups had been told. The communication plan was thrown into complete disarray when the Royal Society of Chemistry's Press Officer called the University on the afternoon of Friday 19 November to say they were issuing a press release immediately to the regional and national media. The RSC were informed that there would be no announcement about Chemistry until the following week, but went ahead anyway. A copy of their press release is attached. Stories were carried over the weekend by West Country Television, the Western Morning News and BBC Radio Devon. Staff and students therefore found out about the closure from the media first and were quite rightly angry.

  The "leak" resulted in much more media attention on Monday 22 November, which had to be dealt with and which consumed some of the time set aside for staff and students. Staff were informed as planned that afternoon. The Vice-Chancellor met with the Guild of Students on Tuesday 23 November and with Chemistry students on Wednesday 24 November. This was followed up by a letter to all Chemistry students on Thursday 25 November.

  Strenuous efforts have been made to keep students up to date with developments.

  1.  A Student Liaison Group consisting of University staff, members of the Guild of Students and Chemistry students was established to aid dialogue. It met on 6 December, 8 December, 11 January and 1 February.

  2.  Students were updated on developments sent by letters on 25 November, 10 December, 11 January, 17 January and 3 February. A joint letter was also sent by the Heads of the Chemistry departments at Bath and Bristol on 24 January.

  3.  Coaches were organised so that students could visit the Chemistry departments of Bath and Bristol Universities on Friday 11 February.

  4.  Students (only about six) who were still undecided about which option to take were offered one-to-one meetings with a Deputy Vice-Chancellor on Monday 14 February.

  5.  Staff have been constantly available to answer questions from parents and students.

February 2005

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